Thursday, February 24, 2011

Making Something out of Nothing

The downturn in the economy can be felt in many corners of the world.  Countless people are lacking extra resources to participate in activities that may be interesting or useful.  This past week I was reading in Timothy Ferris’ book Seeing in the Dark and discovered Edward Emerson Barnard, a truly destitute individual from the beginning, who did not let his economic situation prevent him from learning and contributing to society.

Barnard was born into an impoverished home in 1857, a few months after his father had died.  His mother was the sole provider for her family of two young boys and her only source of income was making wax flowers.  Needless to say, the family was usually hungry.  Once during the Civil War, a ship loaded with supplies sank near the Barnard home in Nashville, Tennessee.  Young Edward traveled to the shipwreck and was able to drag a box of hardtack out from the river. He proudly brought it home for supper that evening for his family to enjoy.

Barnard described his growing up years as “so sad and bitter that even now [he] cannot look back on it without a shudder” (Ferris, 227).  He had very little education – two months to be exact – and as a result had few acquaintances since his efforts were spent simply surviving. To lighten his heart, he would lie out in an old wagon bed and look up at the stars. He studied them for hours and even befriended a few favorites.  One was a bright summer star, directly overhead – Vega. Barnard did not know the star’s name however, because of his lack of schooling.

When he was nine years old, after survived a cholera epidemic that had seized the town, Barnard obtained employment with Van Stavoren’s Photographic Gallery.  There he spent his days cranking a set of wheels to keep a large roof-mounted camera aimed at the Sun to captured light, which was used to make prints of photographic negatives.  After a long day’s work, Barnard walked home in the dark – looking up at the stars.

Barnard worked for the photographic gallery for seventeen years, all the while increasing his knowledge of optics and photography.  Using this knowledge he gathered discarded items and built his own telescope.  Barnard studied the sky for hours with his invention but still lacked any understanding of what he was actually observing.  One day a friend needed two dollars, which was a large sum of money to Barnard, but he loaned it to his friend anyway, never expecting to see it again.  As a security for the two-dollar loan, his friend left Barnard a book.  Being angry about the exchange, Barnard did not bother to look at the book for some time.  When he finally thumbed through it, months later, he found that it was Thomas Dick’s text The Sidereal Heavens – a book about astronomy!  Barnard poured over the star charts in the book and soon found the names of the stars he had befriended as a child.

Barnard continued to observe and sky and began reading extensively, he hired a math tutor and eventually earned a degree in mathematics from Vanderbilt University, where he continued on as an instructor. After teaching for some time he was hired by Lick Observatory when he showed up at the observation domes that were under construction.  There Barnard declared that he had quit his teaching job, sold his house and would work for free if he could just be given a chance to observe through the huge telescopes being built.  Barnard’s keen vision and hard work led him to countless discoveries and honor in the field of astronomy.  He published over 900 papers and observed features on the face of one of Jupiter’s moons, Io, that were not confirmed until the spacecraft Voyager flew by one hundred years later.

Ferris, Timothy. Seeing in the Dark (New York, London, Toronto and Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2002) 227-229.